Following the demolition of one of the largest churches in an eastern Chinese city dubbed "China's Jerusalem", the local authorities have reportedly widened a campaign to tear down or modify at least nine others while detaining several church members. The actions are raising concerns that they could mark a wider crackdown on Christianity and other organised religions.
At least four churches in the coastal province of Zhejiang were razed in the past two weeks, reported the British newspaper The Telegraph on Monday. This comes in the wake of the bulldozing of the eight-storey Sanjiang Church on April 28 in Zhejiang's Wenzhou, a city with one of the highest concentrations of Christians in China.
Another five churches in the province had their crosses taken down or covered up, according to Texas-based China Aid, which offers legal counsel to Christians in China. It said on Tuesday that "the number of churches facing demolition or modification is rumoured to be closer to 50".
At least seven Christians including church elders and missionaries in Zhejiang have been put under house arrest or detained on charges apparently linked to the church demolitions, say China Aid and believers in Wenzhou who posted the information on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo.
Activists like China Aid president Bob Fu call these moves an escalation of severe crackdowns "against Chinese citizens' religious freedom". This has prompted concerns about whether the government is targeting organised religions, seen by some leaders as a potential threat to the Communist Party's grip on power.
Last week, Beijing released a national security alert on terrorism, warning that the "infiltration of religion has constituted a threat to Chinese identification with socialist belief".
It called the spreading religious beliefs a serious challenge to social stability.
Indiana-based Purdue University academic Yang Fenggang predicted this year that China could be home to the world's largest number of Christians with 247 million believers by 2030. This forecast has been questioned by the nationalist newspaper The Global Times, which cited an unnamed official as saying the estimate is "unscientific and obviously an exaggeration" and adding that China allows freedom of beliefs.
Zhejiang officials have also insisted they are not targeting places of worship, but illegal structures under its campaign to modify or remove buildings that violate building codes.
Sanjiang Church, at 100,000 sq ft, was about five times larger than its permitted size, according to Open Doors International, a global charity that aids Christians pressured because of their faith.
In Chinese provinces, building codes tend to be enforced haphazardly, observed Mr Brent Fulton, president of China Source, a Hong Kong-based non-profit group that works with China-oriented churches and organisations. "It appears as if local officials waffled in their stance towards the church's building project."
Sanjiang Church was actually called a "model project" by local officials and was legally registered. But at the end of last year, the authorities said they would demolish it. Several hundred church members surrounded the building to block excavators, attracting international media attention.
This might have caused the local authorities to feel that they had lost face, according to Mr Fulton. At the end of last month, local officials reneged on an earlier compromise to tear down only part of the building, and razed it completely. This and other church demolitions in Zhejiang were "symptoms of China's immature legal system", not renewed persecution of Christians, said Mr Fulton.
Indeed, there has been no news so far that other churches and their members across China have been targeted on the scale of Zhejiang's, said an underground church leader in Beijing, who declined to be named. But he noted that the authorities are likely to come down hard on any religious group that tries to go head-on with them.
Now, many churches operate discreetly and in small groups, said the Beijing church leader.
"We are also careful not to organise activities that might draw attention during sensitive times, such as before major events… and key anniversaries like the anniversary of the Tiananmen incident on June 4, when the authorities tend to react towards any groups that they view as potential sources of trouble," said the underground church leader.
This article was published on May 17 in The Straits Times.
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